On Balance: 120 Million Crimes in the US in 2017 Imposed Losses Valued at $2.6 Trillion: First Estimates of Total Costs in 25 Years

Benefit-cost analyses of criminal justice policies, early childhood education, at-risk youth programs, and other interventions that reduce crime have moved beyond the academic arena into applications by both state and federal policy makers (Welsh, Farrington, & Gowar, 2015). Despite this growing interest in benefit-cost analysis, our recent article in the Journal of Benefit-Cost Analysis (Miller, Cohen, Swedler, Ali, & Hendrie, 2021), provides the first estimates in 25 years of the numbers and total costs of crime against individuals in the US. 


We also developed cost estimates for a broader range of offenses than previously, among them minor offenses such as vandalism and weapons-carrying, as well as non-traditional crimes such as child maltreatment, intimate partner violence, and impaired driving. Due to data limitations, our analysis is focused on crimes where the direct victim is an individual – excluding crimes against business and government (see Cohen, 2020: Chapter 11 for a discussion and partial cost estimates of the latter crimes).

Because no comprehensive national database depicts crime incidence, we combined numerous databases to arrive at crime count estimates. For example, we combined various sources of sexual assault and rape data – crimes that are notoriously undercounted with traditional crime surveys such as the National Criminal Victimization Survey or the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports. Overall, we estimate over 120 million crimes were committed in the U.S, in 2017 - including 24 million violent crimes. About 25 million crimes were reported to police. In descending order, the ten most frequently perpetrated crimes were fraud (including identity theft), assault, vandalism, larceny, rape, impaired driving, sexual assault (excluding rape), burglary, child maltreatment, and intimate partner violence. Drug possession/sale, physical assaults, larceny, child maltreatment, and impaired driving led to the largest number of offenders apprehended. (Our estimates exclude crimes against business or government.)

We estimated the cost per crime largely using previously published methodologies (P. Hunt, Anderson, & Saunders, 2017; P. E. Hunt, Saunders, & Kilmer, 2019; McCollister, French, & Fang, 2010; Miller, Cohen, & Wiersema, 1996; Miller et al., 2017; Yang et al., 2014). Our costs include both tangible and intangible losses. We defined costs to include “external costs” – thereby including, for example, victim losses from burglary or theft (Zerbe, 1998). even though some might consider the offender’s ill-gotten gain as part of a social welfare analysis. The direct costs include police response, medical and mental health care, victim services, court and child welfare proceedings, incarceration and other sanctions, and the value of goods stolen or property damaged. Some of these costs are direct losses to victims or perpetrators; others are paid for in whole or in part by insurance, private hospitals providing uncompensated care, or taxpayers. Direct costs are a small fraction of the costs of violence. Violence costs are dominated by wages and housework (productivity) and quality of life losses of victims and their families, as well lost productivity of incarcerated perpetrators. On a per-crime basis, the most costly crime is murder ($7.8 million), followed by rape ($226,000), other sexual assault ($87,000), impaired driving crash ($84,000), and child maltreatment ($79,000).

Overall, personal crime in the US cost about $2.6 trillion in 2017 – including $620 billion in direct monetary costs and $1.95 trillion in the monetary valuation of lost quality of life. Lost quality of life is conservative as it is based on the “willingness-to-award” victims through jury awards – an amount that is lower than “willingness-to-pay” estimates that go beyond victims and incorporate other social costs of crime. Violent crime accounted for 85% of these costs – largely due to valuation of pain, suffering and reduced quality of life. 

Direct costs to victims and taxpayers totaled $620 billion – about $1,900 for every person in the US. That figure represents 3.2% of U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Of course, since these costs are largely replacing or repairing damage done by criminals, they do not contribute to economic wellbeing; hence they would be subtracted from GDP in a social welfare measure such as the Genuine Progress Indicator. The direct cost of crime in the U.S exceeded the $590 billion spent on the military or the $450 billion spent on social welfare programs in 2017. Health care costs alone totaled over $90 billion –about 2.5% of U.S. health care expenditures.

When we last published similar cost estimates based on 1993 crime rates, we found that tangible crime costs represented about 1.5% of GDP – less than half what we estimate now. That trend might seem surprising because over the past 25 years, traditional street crime such as burglary, robbery and assaults have actually gone down considerably. However, the main reason our crime cost estimates increased so much is that we have now been able to include many non-traditional crimes such as fraud and identity theft, child maltreatment, and impaired driving crashes. These three crimes alone represent about half the total direct costs of crime.

Impaired driving and related crashes currently fall into a “no-man’s-land” in FBI crime statistics, neither violent nor property crime. Paralleling the treatment of arson, our data suggest placing impaired driving among violent crimes. It results from an illegal act and sometimes causes injury or death. While an impaired driving trip is less severe than an assault, it is much more severe than any property crime, by cost per crime. It also is more likely than most crimes to be reported to the police in the United States (Hart & Rennison, 2003). Based on the DOJ’s violent crimes definitions, drunk driving trips not resulting in injury or death would be classified as “attempted or threatened” violent crimes.

Although not analyzed in our article, firearms are a major contributor to the cost of physical violence. If the fractions of robberies and aggravated assaults that California’s Open Justice online tabulation tool (https://openjustice.doj.ca.gov/exploration/crime-statistics/crimes-clearances) indicates involve firearms apply nationwide, firearms are involved in 4.7% of murders, robberies, and assaults. In contrast, they account for 26% of the total annual costs of these crimes including the value of lost quality of life (based on comparably computed firearm injury costs from https://everytownresearch.org/report/the-economic-cost-of-gun-violence/#costs-paid-by-families-and-employers).

The nation is grappling with rising violence and fraud. Our estimates of unit costs and total costs will help to inform some tough decisions – such as appropriate sentencing, allocation of resources toward traditional street crimes versus fraud and identity theft, and expenditures on victim assistance programs. In a resource limited world, policy needs to weigh costs against benefits.


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